Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, November 27, 2009

Richard Greenfield, _Tracer_

I READ THIS quite a while ago, Labor Day weekend I believe, but I've gotten behind, obviously. Besides, since the author is a friend, I didn't want simply to dash something off.

Part One feels anxious. Almost all the poems include the first person singular, and this "I" inhabits a house and a neighborhood whose promise of sanctuary seem compromised -- the house is supposed to shelter and protect us, but has it already been infiltrated by the enemy, in the shape of a "colony of winged ants" perhaps? Traces of its previous tenants, in fact all signs of the previous passage of a now-absent other, have to be read and decoded ("loud nailholes in the drywall / leak autobiography"). The house is both intimately ours and a mysterious, possibly hostile other, with openings into which one has to reach without knowing quite what one may find there ("Bastion"). The nearby public spaces, too, are both ours and not ours ("Foxes appear in the parking lot [...]").

All this unease may be from merely being in a new home in a new town, but it has a kind of post-9/11 malaise to it: our scrutinizing of our once-safe spaces for concealed threats, our self-defeating gestures at protection ("I want to wrap my / compositional theory in duct tape"), the violence born of having been violated, our desperately stupid choices of leaders ("Maverick"). The "I" of these poems is thus easily read as a "we" -- but even that gesture is suspect ("Rapier/Ravine").

The last words of Part One are "o, o / interrupt me --", which suddenly brings to our attention that the "I"-voice has been alone in its house all this time; the implied "you" of the imperative "interrupt me" is the first second person pronoun we've encountered. Even in its public excursions, like that to the museum in "The Session," the "I"-voice mainly met with versions of itself: "in the next room, the restored typewriters from the Disaster/ tapped atonal measures, they were repeating my initials" (at the moment, my favorite lines in the book).

This "I" needs to get out more, we may think, and sure enough on Part Two the speaker is often ambulatory, often outdoors, even often in some rural or natural setting, with sumac, milkweed, horned larks, and bleached shells. A "you" appears briefly in "Tacit Rainbow," but if the natural world is being resorted to as a way of escaping the self, it seems not to be working this time. When we encounter dialogue, the "I"-voice seems to be arguing less with someone else than with itself ("Two Reports"), and encounters with others are accidental collisions that lead to only perfunctory exchanges:

a, child, chasing, a, leaf,

collided with me on the stairs to the overlook, feigned

apology for that self-absorption

And so it also is with the "I"-voice, its explorations into the natural world infallibly returning him (unless it's her -- but I suppose otherwise) to his old introspection and that same old squalor of selfhood:

no end to it,

it keeps on coming:

my primacy

In the book's final poem, "Guideline," the walk ends, we head back to the house through a world (a park, a town, a neighborhood) now seen as always already mapped, our quest for a Wordsworthian epiphany deflated by the need to compose a grocery list, ourselves reminding ourselves what we need to purchase in order to sustain the feeling of remaining ourselves. Back in the volume's first poem, we were looking for writing, the traces of some original intention we could profitably interpret ("the truer scripts of morning light," "the ivy is the new scrawl"), and now we are trying to write ourselves, trying to leave signs on paper in an effort to remember what we thought we wanted.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

James Shapiro, _A Year in the Life of WIlliam Shakespeare: 1599_

WELL, IT'S BEEN a while since I posted anything. You know how it gets -- busy, busy, busy. Good thing I have next to no readers!

I imagine a lot of Shakespeare scholars have toyed with the idea of turning their expertise to account with a Bard-book aimed at a broad lay audience -- certainly examples abound (Bloom, Vendler, Greenblatt, Garber, Nuttall, Bate). James Shapiro has hit on a rather neat way to do that here. Focus on a single year -- a year in which Shakespeare was truly hitting his stride (Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and starting Hamlet) and a year moreover rich in incident both for Shakespeare (the construction of the Globe) and for England (Essex's Irish debacle).

From the first paragraphs of the "Prologue" -- a description of the weather in London in December, 1598, leading to the sentence, "As the snow fell, a dozen or so armed men gathered in Shoreditch, in London's northern suburbs," we know we are settling into popular scholarship mode -- quasi-novelistic, lots of scenery, lots of vivid characters. Honest-to-God Shakespeare scholars would probably stop right here, unless they were planning to write a scathing review.

But in those scathing reviews -- and Shapiro got some, along with the Samuel Johnson Prize from BBC 4 -- is there not always that tinge of envy, that pinch of ressentiment that a hard-working scholar may feel towards a brother scholar who has a book published by a non-university press, complete no doubt with handsome advance, ads in the New York Times Book Review, interviews on the radio? Damn it, these scathing reviews always seem to mutter under their breath, why didn't I think of that?

Because this is, you know, a great idea. And Shapiro comes armed with a scholar's knowledge of apparently everything that came into print in 1599. He does have to make things up -- Shakespeare very likely did go back to Stratford at some point in the year, but Shapiro basically has to invent the when and the why of the trip, to say nothing of dreaming up what was on wife Anne's mind. But he knows enough about the period to make it all work.

A sequel of sorts is in the works, apparently, focusing on 1608, the year of King Lear, but Shapiro's next book looks to be not that one, but another consideration of the authorship question -- a topic with no cachet at all among Shakespeare scholars but plenty among that coveted lay audience. Oh, well.